One day a month ago, at 5 A.M., Adeeb Joudeh realized that his world had collapsed. Joudeh, 55, is a well-respected figure in Jerusalem’s Old City. The Joudehs are one of the oldest Palestinian families in Jerusalem, one of the two Muslim families that hold the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The keys and custodianship have been passed down from father to son – Muslims – for centuries.
His role as keeper of the keys brings Joudeh to the church’s doors every morning. On that bitter morning he received a call from his neighbors in the Muslim Quarter. They told him to show up quickly because Jews had moved into the house he had sold.
“I realized right away what had happened,” Joudeh says, even though he had “sold the house openly, to a person recommended by everybody” – a Palestinian.
Since that morning, Joudeh has been defending his reputation in the city’s Palestinian community, where there's no greater crime than such a sale.
Since settlers moved in to the Joudeh family home, other deals have come to light in which houses were sold to Jews, with the accompanying dramas. This week, for example, every cemetery in East Jerusalem refused to bury Alla Kiresh, a victim of a car accident in the Jordan Valley, because his name was associated with the sale of a house to Jews. A fatwa to that effect was issued by a preacher at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
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In the end, Kiresh was buried without a ceremony outside Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority is holding Issam Akel on similar suspicions, with the Israel Police and Shin Bet Security Service trying to get him released.
The sale of Joudeh’s house is roiling Palestinians throughout East Jerusalem, as well as on the social networks and in the wider media, for two reasons: the prominence of his family and the involvement of senior PA figures.
Joudeh says he’s not afraid but admits he doesn’t roam the Old City’s streets like he used to. “There’s a lot of incitement against me and there are many fools around here. I’ve been condemned to death,” he says, adding that he doesn’t go back to his old house. “It hurts me to go there, I’ll have a heart attack.”
“I started coming to the church with my father when I was 8,” Joudeh says. “Now I’m 55, the keeper of the keys. In the future, one of my sons will assume this role.” Being a Muslim, Joudeh doesn’t pray there.
Joudeh has also served as a police investigator, one of a handful of policemen from East Jerusalem. When the current affair blew up, this fact was proof to his rivals that he was disloyal to the Palestinian cause.
“I put the house up for sale in 2012,” he says. “First I turned to the Waqf religious trust and other Palestinian companies, but they weren’t interested. We wanted the building to remain in good hands, with Palestinians looking after it, but nobody wanted it.”
Two years ago, Joudeh was approached by Fadi Elsalameen, a Palestinian businessman and activist who lives in the United States. He offered to buy the house.
Elsalameen is known as someone close to Mohammed Dahlan, the bitterest rival of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Elalameen constantly accuses the PA of corruption. Two years ago, he visited East Jerusalem surrounded by bodyguards, saying he feared abduction by the PA.
Elsalameen says the PA did everything it could to cancel the deal. His accounts in West Bank banks were frozen and he couldn’t transfer the money to Joudeh. The deal was ultimately canceled.
The next person to approach Joudeh was Khaled Atari, a Palestinian businessman with a bank in Ramallah, someone considered close to the PA, particularly to its intelligence chief, Majed Faraj, a candidate to take over from Abbas one day.
“I don’t know Atari but I looked into it – I went to Adnan Husseini, the PA’s minister for Jerusalem affairs, and to other officials,” Joudeh says.
“They all said they knew him personally and that he’s clean. No one had anything bad to say about him. I met him at the best restaurants in Ramallah and I saw how people treated him. You felt you were sitting with someone with status.”
Atari was not immediately available for comment.
The deal was signed in 2016 and the house was sold to Atari for $2.5 million. Atari transferred the title from his name to a company called Daho Holdings, registered on a Caribbean island, a tax haven. Settler activists are known for using such havens to conceal the identity of the buyer and seller.
Joudeh didn’t find anything suspicious. The buyer told him he wanted to save on taxes. He says that until he got the call from his neighbors he didn’t imagine that Atari was connected to settlers. His next call was to Atari.
“I told him that there were settlers in the house,” Joudeh says. “He wasn’t fazed; he said it was early and he’d call the next day. He hasn’t called since.”
The two met during a mediation procedure conducted by family chiefs in East Jerusalem, led by Sheikh Abdullah Alqam of the Shoafat refugee camp. The procedure was public and conducted on Facebook. Atari tried to defend himself, claiming he bought the house under Elsalameen’s instructions. Elsalameen vehemently denies this.
The mediator, Alqam, is inclined to believe Joudeh. “I think Joudeh is clean and Atari was the one who sold,” Alqam says. “I have a document at home showing that Atari paid property tax and the water and electricity bills, all in his name. He said he wanted the house for his daughter and then we saw settlers moving in.”
Joudeh adds: “If Elsalameen wanted to buy the house, what did he need Atari for? He just needed to transfer the money to me; we already had an agreement.”
But the mediation was halted after Atari complained that he was being threatened. The police arrested Alqam and he was forbidden to continue handling the issue. “Someone high up is protecting him,” Joudeh says, referring to a temporal, not a religious, power. “Behind him is a big secret that only he knows about.”
Meanwhile, the storm around Joudeh continues. Last week his extended family announced that the keys would be taken from him and given to another family member until the issue was cleared up. Joudeh says this is a family branch in Jordan that has no say in the matter, so he still goes to the church every day.
“I didn’t run away and I’m not hiding. I sold the house openly, to a person recommended by everybody. I constantly think of ways of getting out of this mess,” Joudeh says.
“Journalists and people on the street have condemned me to death without asking me about it. No one has approached me to find out the truth,” he adds.
“I have an honored position and I’ve always fought to retain our family’s reputation. We’re the oldest family in the city – would I sully our name so easily? I repeat, I’m innocent. God knows I’m innocent.”